NUR-SULTAN • Kazakhstan's ruling party swept to victory in an opposition-free parliamentary election on Sunday, cementing the Central Asian country's authoritarian trajectory despite promises of reform.
An exit poll by government-sanctioned pollster Public Opinion gave the Nur Otan party nearly 72 per cent of the ballot and showed two other pro-government parties crossing the 7 per cent vote threshold.
But exit polls are tightly controlled in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet country that has never held an election deemed free or fair by Western vote monitors.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, 67, has pledged gradual political reforms since being eased into his post by former leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who resigned after nearly three decades as head of state in early 2019.
But the 80-year-old Mr Nazarbayev retains powerful positions, including the chairmanship of Nur Otan, which controls the Lower House and boasts 800,000 members among a population of 19 million.
Dozens of anti-government activists were reportedly detained despite Mr Tokayev pledging that the police would treat protesters "within the framework of the law", after he cast his vote in the capital Nur-Sultan on Sunday.
Riot police surrounded two groups of several dozen protesters in tight circles for several hours in frosty conditions in the largest city Almaty.
"Many of us have had to go to the toilet here, on the street," claimed Mr Zhanbolat Mamay, a prominent activist, speaking from inside one of the cordons. "Dozens of our members were arrested today."
The situation in Nur-Sultan, which was renamed in Mr Nazarbayev's honour when he stepped down, was calm, and polling stations saw long queues throughout the day.
One 50-year-old man named Nurzhan told Agence France-Presse that many Kazakhs "have stopped believing in progress".
"But I still hope (things) can be better," he said, explaining his decision to head to the polls.
Turnout, which critics say is routinely inflated by the authorities, reached 63.1 per cent after polls closed.
One candidate featured on the ballot was Mr Nazarbayev's eldest daughter, 57-year-old Dariga Nazarbayeva, representing Nur Otan. Her return to politics comes just eight months after Mr Tokayev fired her as Senate speaker - a role second in line to the presidency.
Her dismissal, which was not explained, triggered speculation about a power struggle.
But the new President regularly lavishes praise on his mentor's achievements and has pledged to continue his strategic course. The men appeared together at a Nur Otan party congress last November.
The World Bank has estimated that Kazakhstan's economy shrank 2.5 per cent last year as it grappled with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic - the first year-on-year recession in two decades.
But suffocating authoritarianism has left few outlets to voice dissatisfaction with the status quo.
One self-styled opposition group, the National Social Democratic Party, boycotted the vote in protest, having missed out on the legislature every time after competing in the last three parliamentary votes.
France-based fugitive banker and long-time regime nemesis Mukhtar Ablyazov last year called on his supporters to vote for the pro-government Ak Zhol party to undermine Nur Otan's dominance.
In an apparent response, Ak Zhol closed its books to new members.